Man-Made Disasters Sinking of the U.S. Submarine Thresher Part 1

About the sinking of the U.S. nuclear submarine the Thresher in 1963, history and account of the man-made disaster and tragedy.



An entire crew of men lost their lives in the sinking of the U.S. nuclear submarine Thresher. It was the worst peacetime catastrophe in the history of the U.S. Navy and one of the worst deep-sea disasters of all time.

When: Apr. 10, 1963.

Where: Wilkenson Deep in the North Atlantic, 220 mi. east of Cape Cod off the New Hampshire coast.

The Loss: 129 men were killed.

The Disaster: One of the most effective antisubmarine warfare weapons in the navy arsenal, the Thresher submarine was built in 1960 at a cost of $45 million. The sub measured 279 ft. long, weighed 4,300 tons, and was to be the first of a new class of nuclear submarines designed to seek out and eliminate enemy vessels.

Its wares included sophisticated navigation and underwater detection equipment, and four 21-in. torpedo tubes were built into the conning tower (instead of the bow) for increased mobility. The Thresher was faster and quieter, and could travel deeper, than any other submarine.

The purpose of building such an advanced war machine was twofold. A sub that was able to reach 1,000-ft. depths could transport people or goods without surface-wave interference. The political advantages were more obvious. As depth attainability increases, so does the area of possession. With that comes increased power and security.

Between 1960 and 1963, the Thresher carried out several routine assignments. Most of its life, though, was spent in dry dock being overhauled.

On Apr. 9, 1963, the Thresher was escorted out of the Portsmouth, N.H., dockyard at 8:00 A.M. by the submarine-rescue vessel Skylark for a series of tests. (Strangely enough, Skylark's rescue capabilities were limited to operations conducted at depths not in excess of 850 ft. This was 150 ft. short of the Thresher's test limit.) The Thresher carried 129 men, 34 more than the standard crew.

Thirty miles off the coast, it submerged at 12:22 P.M. for six hours of tests. Skylark kept track of its whereabouts with sonar equipment, Morse code, and two-way radio. Communications were maintained throughout the following morning.

Maneuvers commenced at 7:00 A.M. on Apr. 10. A 300-ft. level was reached at 7:52; the Thresher then informed Skylark that it was checking for leaks as a routine precaution. Progress reports continued to come in, at 7:54, 8:25, 8:53, and 9:02. The 1,000-ft. depth was reached at 9:12, followed by trouble just one minute later.

The Thresher radioed Skylark: "Experiencing minor problem... have positive angle...attempting to blow--" Blowing sounds were then heard over the intercom. Skylark navigation officer James C. Watson asked for the sub's course and position but got no reply. Lt. Comdr. Stanley Hecker, Skylark's captain, snapped up the microphone and yelled, "Are you in control? Are you in control?" After two minutes of silence came the garbled message "...exceeding test depth."

Skylark set off flare signals, tapped out Morse code, and kept careful watch. A routine report scheduled to come through at 10:17 was not heard.

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